George Packer’s recent jeremiad in The Atlantic offers an object lesson on the disarray of modern progressive thought. Packer’s essay, about K-12 education in New York City, rails against two enemies: “a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism,” which, he argues, are ripping apart the social fabric of New York City. His exhaustive lament, detailing his and his wife’s desperate effort to navigate a broken system for their two children, lacks any systematic analysis of the institutional forces driving the problems he identifies. He also never questions his deep faith in an enlightened social welfare state.
He begins the essay pointing to the painful experience of parents who spent a cold February night in sleeping bags outside the schoolhouse door in order to obtain places for their children in a desirable public preschool whose slots are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Packer attributes this extreme behavior to the “organized pathologies of adults” who have surrendered to the brutal meritocracy.More